In the Durham DA’s Race, the Big Question Is Whether Roger Echols Has Been Enough of a Reformer | Durham County | Indy Week
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In the Durham DA’s Race, the Big Question Is Whether Roger Echols Has Been Enough of a Reformer 

click to enlarge Roger Echols
  • Roger Echols

In his bid for a second term, Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols will face two challengers in the May 8 Democratic primary, including one who snagged an important endorsement from a powerful local political action committee.

Last week, Satana Deberry, the executive director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition, won the backing of the People's Alliance PAC in a close vote in which Deberry's vision bested Echols's experience. Criminal defense attorney Daniel Meier will also be on the ballot, though he didn't get much attention during the PA's endorsement forum.

According to Tom Miller, a PAC coordinator, speakers were fairly evenly divided between Deberry and Echols. Both sides were concerned about the same issues, but they disagreed over who was best-suited to execute progressive policies once in office: Deberry, whose supporters are excited by her fresh perspective and calls for reform, and Echols, who supporters say is already instituting some of those ideas.

Miller says a lot of attorneys—both defense and prosecutors—spoke in support of Echols. They noted that he took over a "troubled" office (the previous two DAs had been removed for misconduct) and pointed to the diversion and amnesty programs he instituted as evidence that he was already moving in the direction Deberry's supporters want.

It's Echols's policy to begin with the lightest sentence when negotiating plea deals. Some cases are referred to the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham for restorative justice as part of a defendant's sentence. In partnership with the Durham Innovation Team, the DA's office implemented an amnesty program that allowed people to apply by text or email to have their traffic records wiped clean and get their driver's licenses reinstated.

Recently, representatives from the DA's office, the county jail, pretrial services, and the Public Defender's office began meeting weekly to review who is being held in jail on bail less than $5,000 and negotiate for a lower or unsecured bond. About three weeks ago, that list had been whittled down to zero, although it has fluctuated since, Echols says.

Echols says that, if re-elected, his priorities wouldn't change. He would seek to strengthen the misdemeanor diversion program (which is only available to teens) and mental health and drug treatment court—"creative ways to dispose of cases to the benefit of all," as he puts it.

"Experience tells me when and how you can employ them and at the same time look for more creative ways to do that and lessen the impact as much as we can to the effects of crime on victims and defendants," he says.

But when it comes to bail reform, Echols says there's not much he can do. Under state law, judges and magistrates set bail based on guidelines written by judges, referred to as a bail schedule. He would support a change to state law eliminating cash bail, as long as the public is not endangered.

"If I could pass that law myself and write the fiscal note and give the money, I would," he says.

click to enlarge Satana Deberry
  • Satana Deberry

Deberry, however, sees the DA position as central to reform. She pledges to be a more outward-facing, transparent district attorney.

Deberry spent about seven years as a criminal defense attorney but left to help people before they interacted with the courts. She went on to work for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the state Department of Health and Human Services, and Self-Help.

Black and brown people in Durham have been over-prosecuted and over-incarcerated for decades under different DAs, Deberry says, which to her indicates the need for a new approach.

"I see the systems differently than a career prosecutor. I see the heart of this community. I see all of the impacts over-criminalization has," she says.

Deberry says she would convene a task force as a liaison to the community and craft a prosecutorial policy grounded in the input it gathers. She's also stressing diversion for cases rooted in mental illness, poverty, and substance use by making fewer arrests to begin with, and she opposes the current bail schedule.

"I think we arrest too many people for low-level felonies and misdemeanors," she says. "Most of those people should be able to write themselves out [of jail]. There should be no bond because there's just no indication that those people are dangerous to the community."

Deberry's PA supporters weren't dissuaded by news that her campaign website closely mirrors that of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who is being lauded for the reforms he's rolling out. They like Deberry's platform and think prosecutors should be looking to Krasner as a model, Miller says. (Deberry denies copying and pasting the language in her platform, although some passages are identical.)

"The assertions made on her behalf were more aspirational," Miller says.

click to enlarge Daniel Meier
  • Daniel Meier

Meier says voters who think Echols hasn't done enough to reform the system should look to him as an alternative. A defense attorney for sixteen years, Meier says Echols has taken some positive steps, but "it's time to move forward more dramatically on some changes that better reflect what Durham stands for and what Durham pursues."

He would expand the misdemeanor diversion program to include more low-level, victimless offenses, push for the bail schedule to be revised to recommend unsecured bonds for more offenses, and institute an amnesty program for people with outstanding warrants for failing to appear in court.

"We think that a few days don't matter, but any time in jail is a lot, especially if you shouldn't be there," he says.

Because no one from outside of the Democratic Party filed to run for the seat, the winner of the Democratic primary will be the county's district attorney.

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